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Editor's Note: The Rumble That Roared 

How exactly is making a big deal out of charging tourists with false crime reports supposed to reassure other tourists?

LAST FRIDAY was an unusual day in downtown Savannah.

The same day TV cameras surrounded former police Chief Willie Lovett as he was sentenced to prison on federal charges, new police Chief Joseph Lumpkin discussed a different set of charges in front of the cameras.

Flanking Lumpkin at the podium was a collection of the best and the brightest local minds in the Savannah tourism and business community, steely-eyed with resolve.

Like Liam Neeson on the phone with a kidnapper, Downtown Neighborhood Association member and Broughton business owner Ruel Joyner grimly intoned to a news camera, "We will come after you."

Yikes! Someone's in big trouble. Who or what are we coming after with such determination?

What crisis could have motivated all these important people to stand side by side with the police chief to issue such a dire warning?

The many recidivist violent offenders our legal system can't seem to keep behind bars for their full sentences?

The issue of every third Savannah resident living at or below the poverty line?

The danger of becoming increasingly dependent on the low-wage service and retail jobs inherent in a tourism-driven economy?

The poor educational system which impacts the quality of the workforce available to these business owners?

The need to adhere to fair regulatory practices so there will still be room for local businesses downtown?

Embezzlement and dysfunction in the local court system?

Maybe Lovett himself, as an example of the continuing need to root out corruption in the police department? Maybe about the apparent travesty that he will continue to collect a pension from City taxpayers?

Nope. It was about a fistfight on Bay Street. And concerns that Savannah might "look bad" to tourists because of it.

The 2 a.m. street brawl after Super Bowl Sunday prompted Corey Walters of Riverview, Florida to tell police he and his girlfriend were viciously attacked "for sport," which police later said constituted a false report based on surveillance footage proving Walters instigated the fracas.

The whole hubbub was an almost identical rerun of a 2014 incident on River Street involving tourists from the Atlanta area who said they were attacked, and who were later charged with filing a false report based on video.

Then as now, a police chief—in that case Acting Chief Julie Tolbert—held a news conference urged in part by local tourism officials to publicize the charges against the tourists, supposedly to reassure tourists.

To "send a message." But to whom?

False reports are a serious waste of police resources and taxpayer money, and I don't mean to trivialize them. Lying to police is always a terrible idea.

And while these fights did indeed occur and the reports weren't completely fabricated, I have no particular grounds to question police assessment of the surveillance footage in either case.

But I've long questioned how making a very big, very public deal out of charging tourists with false crime reports is supposed to somehow reassure other tourists it's OK to come here. Seems like that sends the exact opposite message.

In cases that don't happen to involve tourism, police rightly go out of their way to encourage people to come forward with as much information as possible.

The need for more citizen cooperation and involvement is understandably a running theme of most every other police news conference here.

So I do question the true target audience for these types of charges and of these types of news conferences.

And I wonder what's actually going to come out of this after the cameras are off.

Given the inability of our prisons to hold many of the criminals already in them for anything close to their full sentences, and given this police department's critical personnel shortage, I question whether the long arm of the law is really going to reach all the way to Hillsborough County, Florida, to extradite tourists on such a comparatively minor charge.

Stranger things have happened, and who am I to say? But you have to wonder if it's the best use of our taxes when there are already so many existing warrants out on local suspects.

As for the concerned business leaders at the news conference, seeing how long after the holidays it took to remove the outsized Christmas trees hastily stuffed into the new planters on Broughton Street, I'm not entirely sure they'll get around to making the six-hour trip to the Tampa/St. Pete area to "come after" anyone, Ninja style.

As with just about every news conference these days, someone—in this case Michael Owens of the Tourism Leadership Council—mentioned the Magic Number of the fabled 13 million annual visitors to Savannah.

It's a number which helpfully seems to jump by a more or less even million every year, and which in part drives all kinds of major public policy decisions in this town, from tax rates to building variances to salary hikes for public officials.

I'm not sure how they handle these kinds of things in other places heavily dependent on tourism, like Orlando or Myrtle Beach or Gatlinburg, or even Charleston.

But I have a hard time believing that tourism officials in those places would make a point of getting their police chief to hold a special news conference about a drunken street affray of the type cops break up probably dozens of times a month.

Make no mistake: That's real power. And someone wants you to know it.

I think the target market for this message might not be tourists, or criminals.

It might be you.

So you'll remember what side of the bread the butter goes on. Who really runs this little town. In case you forgot.

One of Savannah's small-town selling points is its charm and provincialism. But when the provincialism takes over, the charm can evaporate pretty quickly.

As for what really makes us "look bad" to outsiders:

What looks worse? False reports about fights in the tourist area, or making such a mountain over such a molehill, when there are so many worse problems that actually do make us "look bad?" cs

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About The Author

Jim Morekis

Jim Morekis

Bio:
A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series... more

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